How should we speak to children about their behaviour?

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If you’re the parent of a toddler, chances are you’ve seen the odd wobble, tantrum or full-blown meltdown. But how can we deal with these situations?

“Parents need to understand that behaviour is a form of communication.” That’s the verdict of educational psychologist Dr Alison Gurney. When your child is acting up, it’s not always that they are choosing to be defiant. Instead, they are either trying to tell you something that they don’t have the words for yet or otherwise they’re looking to assert their independence.

“Rather than just going straight in and thinking ‘how can I control this behaviour and how can I manage it?’, the first thing that parents need to be thinking is actually ‘what’s my child trying to tell me by acting in this way?”

Parents need to understand that behaviour is a form of communication.

Emotional validation and understanding

With this in mind, how can parents look to correct behaviour they don’t want to see?

“There’s two key factors that are really important. The first one is warmth, making your child feel loved and safe and a sense of belonging. The second is limit-setting, making sure that you’re putting boundaries in place for things that aren’t appropriate. Sometimes we can jump straight to setting limits at the cost of warmth.”

According to Alison, it’s important that children understand that they’re allowed to feel negative emotions, like being angry or scared. “A key message is to try not to give your child the sense that they shouldn’t be feeling those ways. This means to stop saying things like ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’ or ‘there’s no need to get upset’”, she says.

Instead, Alison encourages parents to connect with children emotionally before correcting behaviour, an approach called ‘emotion coaching’.

A little boy having a tantrum.
“A key message for parents is to try not to give your child the sense that they shouldn’t be feeling those ways.”

Emotion coaching – the 4 steps

When it comes to dealing with tantrums there are 4 main steps to the emotion coaching approach.

1. Tune into your child’s feelings (and your own)

“When your child is behaving in a way that you don’t want, you’ve got to tune into what they might be feeling and also what you’re feeling,” says Alison.

Let’s take an example: say you wanted your child to stop playing with their toys and come and have lunch, but despite asking nicely, they throw a bit of a strop and start throwing their toys around.

The first step is to take note of how you’re both feeling: “they’re upset because they were really enjoying themselves and you’ve come in and interrupted. At the same time, you’ve got lunch on the table and now it’s going cold, so you’re frustrated too.”

2. Recognise the learning opportunity

This means taking a deep breath and thinking about what you might be able to teach your child in this situation about their emotions and behaviour.

“It’s sort of making a promise to yourself – ‘actually I’m going to use this as a learning opportunity, I’m not just going to dive straight in with ‘we’re not doing that’”, explains Alison.

3. Name your child’s feelings

The third step involves showing your child that you’ve recognised how they feel and letting them know that it’s ok to feel that way.

“You might say something like ‘you look a little bit cross because I’ve asked you to finish playing with the toys. It’s okay to be cross sometimes’.”

By naming the feelings, your child will start to link how they feel with the words that you use.

4. Explain how you want them to behave

This is where you set limits on how your child is behaving.

“If you want to teach your child that that’s not the appropriate way to behave, then give a reason for why they shouldn’t do it and explain what you want them to do instead.

“You might say, ‘I can see you’re upset – you’re throwing toys around the room. Mummy/Daddy doesn’t like it when you do that. They could hurt me. We need to keep the toys on the floor’.

‘I want you to finish playing because it’s time for lunch now. Should we leave the toys here so they’re ready when we come back?’.”

A room full of toys on the floor.
Toys everywhere can be an annoying sight as a parent, but what steps can you take when your toddler has a meltdown?

Why it’s useful

Taking a moment to stop and think things through can lead to the best solution for you both. “In our example, if you hadn’t taken the time to stand back and realise the child is frustrated and think about why, then you might not have realised that actually, if they knew they could come back to the activity, then that would make them feel better and more likely to go along with it.”

Even if your child is throwing a paddy in public, it’s worth going through the whole process, says Alison. “Even though it can be embarrassing, you won’t be the only parent who has experienced it,” she reminds us. “I would say that although it’s probably going to be much harder in a public place, keeping calm and trying to follow the 4 steps has the best chance of success.” This is because children are more likely to go along with the limits you set when they feel like they’re being listened to and that their emotions are normal.

Avoiding tantrums

According to Alison, over time you’ll get better at tuning into what your child is trying to tell you and taking steps to avoid tantrums. But it’s also important to help toddlers grow more independent.

“Keep a close eye on what your child is able to do, because at this age they’re progressing so quickly. From one month to the next they might suddenly be able to pull their shoe on and pull the Velcro across, for example. As a parent you’re often rushing around on your own schedule, but try to allow your child time to develop certain skills and catch yourself when you’re trying to help them or do it for them.”

This can pay off in terms of behaviour, says Alison.

Often, when a parent has backed off a bit and has given the child more space and more room to exert their independence, then you see a lot less battles.

A child putting their shoe on.
By keeping an eye on what your toddler is able to do for themselves, you can spot opportunities for them to exercise their independence.

Advice if you’re struggling

If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour, then it’s important to keep a check on yourself. “Make sure that if you’re feeling a bit wobbly, then you’re reaching out and talking to family and friends”, Alison says.

It might seem difficult, but try and speak to other parents about children’s behaviour too. “I would bet my bottom dollar that if you talk to another parent about a tantrum, you’ll find that they will share their experiences.”

It’s worth remembering that tantrums are completely normal behaviour for young children as they develop their understanding of their feelings and what to do with them. However, if you’re not sure, then it’s worth seeking advice. “Talk to your health visitor. They have additional training in behaviour and the social/emotional needs of children and they’re often very open to supporting families with this.”

If your child is in settings like a nursery or childminder’s, then maybe ask whether they’ve noticed anything too. “That way you’ll be able to come up with a plan together rather than you just worrying about it, not having talked to anyone.”